Any other name

MINNESOTA COOP ADOPTS TECHNOLOGY, NOT TERMINOLOGY

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine July/August 2009

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SONJA BOGART IS A WELL-INFORMED UTILITY professional. Still, a bulk of the literature she peruses about the smart grid leaves her more confounded than informed.

And at Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association, she's not alone with that sentiment. Fear of baffling members has prompted the Rockford, Minn.-based coop—serving two rural and suburban counties near the Twin Cities—to shy away from smart grid terminology while embracing the technology.

''Smart grid is now a buzzword within the industry,'' said Bogart, Wright-Hennepin's vice president of customer service, sales and marketing for the last decade. ''It has so many definitions and means so many different things to so many people, we're afraid we would confuse our customers by using it.''

Instead, the coop jam-packs its monthly newsletter and Web site with tips and updates about how its recent efforts to automate substations and replace old meters are contributing to energy efficiency, rapid detection and repair of outages, and the ability for customers to regulate and monitor their electricity consumption online.

''This fits with our goal of trying to give them better information,'' Bogart said. ''We've always heard that they want information about energy efficiency and we know that a customer with knowledge about energy use is more likely to reduce energy use.''

REASONABLE RATES & INVESTMENTS

Thus far, she said, their 40,000-plus residential and commercial members—served by about 45,000 meters—have been receptive to the message. For instance, Wright-Hennepin mailed out detailed letters before embarking on its three-year rollout of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) in 2006.

AMI technology, one component of a smarter grid, seemed logical to customers because reading meters remotely saved money. It also allowed the coop to track daily energy patterns and pinpoint monthly meter readings.

''Our customers understand this new technology,'' Bogart said. ''Plus, I think the trust was there from the beginning. We have competitive rates [10 cents per kWh] with other utilities in the area. If our rates had been out of line, we probably would have heard from people about our investment in these meters.''

Once AMI installation was completed in 2008, Wright-Hennepin inaugurated a Web site service christened ''My Meter.'' Customers can track their energy ups and downs, compare their numbers to an average in the area, set reduction goals and access energy-saving tips.

''Initially, we installed My Meter as a customer service tool,'' Bogart said. ''We wanted to keep it simple. What we've terminology found is that it's also a great tool for handling complaints and questions about high bills. Our customer service representatives love this.''

My Meter has actually turned those representatives into front-line, smart grid educators via telephone and e-mail conversations with curious consumers. Those exchanges become more sophisticated as Wright-Hennepin members become well-versed about coop techniques to manage peak demand.

MORE CUSTOMER CONNECTION

Soon, Wright-Hennepin will roll out a pilot program to test smart thermostats and home energy displays, said Lance Hovland, vice president of energy distribution. These devices will put even more information and control in customers' hands.

''I think we're ahead of the whole smart grid game,'' Hovland said. ''We don't have people asking for these changes, but we've gotten positive feedback. We're trying to find that right balance between economics and doing the right thing for the environment.''

The advantage of being a small and agile utility, Bogart pointed out, is the ability to initiate sensible programs without organizing focus groups. Front-line employees can ably handle one-on-one member ''lessons.''

And, who knows? If the term ''smart grid'' penetrates the local lexicon, the language might eventually creep into communications from Wright-Hennepin.

''We didn't really make a conscious decision not to use the words smart grid,'' Bogart concluded. ''We figure if you focus on what your customers' needs are, you're going to come out okay in the end. That's what we're trying to do here.''

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